August 21, 2002


He Made Our World Universal, Chaim Potok : 1929-2002 (Ari L. Goldman, Jerusalem Report)
Potok spoke more clearly and more directly to me than Bellow or Roth or Malamud. I didn't know Nathan Zuckerman or Alexander Portnoy. They didn't go to my yeshivah or hang out in my shul. They weren't from my world. But Danny and Reuven and Asher were.

Potok showed us that we could make literature out of our own lives. Here was the shul, there was the bais medrash, here was the rebbe, there was the stickball game. Is that my father or Reuven's making Kiddush? Is that my mother or Danny's lighting Shabbos candles?

Bellow, Roth and Malamud's characters walked away from Judaism, but Potok's characters were destined to struggle. They could neither break away nor stay. They had to forge their own way and, most important, their own faith.

One of my favorite Potok vignettes comes from "The Book of Lights," which was published in 1981 and was based on the author's years as a United States Army chaplain in Korea in the 1950s. The main character, again a struggling Jew, comes upon a Buddhist religious ceremony and asks with wonder: "If that is sacred, then what is it that we do? And if what we do is sacred, then what is this that they are doing?"

It is the kind of moment that many of us have experienced when going beyond the borders of our own faith. Potok's ability to portray that moment was just one of the reasons why his books found an audience beyond the struggling yeshivah boys like myself who felt liberated by his writing.

And what made Mr. Potok such a great author is that you didn't need to go to yeshiva or shul for Danny and Reuven to affect you. Posted by Orrin Judd at August 21, 2002 8:57 AM
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